Hedda Gabler - Fiend or Heroine?

Last night I went to see the Roundabout Theater's production of Hedda Gabler starring Mary Louise Parker at the American Airlines theater here in New York. As I was watching the play (before I walked out during the interval), I started thinking about the fictional scandalous women, women whose stories shocked the reading public at the time. Women like Madame Bovary, Forever Amber, Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, and Fanny Hill.

This blog has been mainly about the real life Scandalous Women in history, but I thought I would start a new feature, tackling some of these fictional women and why their stories were so outrageous to readers at the time.

I have long had a love/hate relationship with the play Hedda Gabler. I have seen many productions of this play and I still can't get around the fact that I hate this character. Last night, I started wondering what it was about this fictional woman that pushed my buttons. And was it the same for audience members in the late 19th Century when Hedda was first produced?

The character of Hedda is considered to be one of the great dramatic roles, the "female Hamlet." Over the years, Hedda has been portrayed as an idealistic heroine fighting against society's stricture on women, a victim of circumstance, a feminist icon, or a manipulative villainess. When the play opened in Germany, in 1891, it garnered mainly negative reviews. The idea of a character, especially a woman, committing suicide on stage had to have been controversial.

Here are some of the earliest reviews and commentaries on the play:

So specious is the dramatist, so subtle is his skill in misrepresentations, so fatal is his power of persuasion that for a moment we believe Hedda Gabler is a noble heroine, and not a fiend, and that Lovborg is deserving of our pity and not our condemnation. (Clement Scott - The Daily Telegraph, 1891)

Ibsen's greatest play and the most interesting woman that he has created - she is compact with all the vices, she is instinct with all the virtues of womanhood. (Justin Huntly McCarthy, London Black and White, April 25, 1891)

What a hopeless specimen of degeneracy is Hedda Gabler! A vicious, heartless, cowardly, unmoral, mischief-making vixen. (The Ledger, Philadelphia, February 13, 1904)

What a marvel of stupidity and nonsense the author did produce in this play! It is incredible to think that only a score of years ago the audience sat seriously before its precious dullness. (G.B. Shaw)

Ibsen himself wrote: The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father's daughter than her husband's wife. It was not really my intention to deal in this play with so called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies upon a groundwork of certain social conditions and principles of the present day.

Hedda is a woman of complex passions and emotional extremes. In a sense, if you want to get technical, you could say that she is manic-depressive or bi-polar as it is called nowadays.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not read and seen the play, you might want to skip this portion of the blog as I give a brief plot summary of the play.

The action takes place in a villa in what is now Oslo but was called Kristiana back in Ibsen's day. Hedda Gabler has just returned from her honeymoon with Tesman, an aspiring academic, who has turned their honeymoon into a research trip. It becomes clear over the course of the play that she has never loved him but has married him for reasons pertaining to the boring nature of her life, (she is 28 and was presumably on the shelf when she finally got Tesman to marry her) and it is suggested that she may be pregnant.

The reappearance of Tesman's academic rival and Hedda's old love, Ejlert Løvborg, throws their lives into disarray. Løvborg is an alcoholic who has wasted his talent until now. Thanks to a relationship with Hedda's old schoolmate, Thea Elvsted (who has left her husband for him), he shows signs of rehabilitation and has just completed a bestseller. The critical success of his recently published work transforms Løvborg into a threat to Tesman, as Løvborg becomes a competitor for the university professorship Tesman had been counting on. The couple are financially overstretched and Tesman now tells Hedda that he will not be able to finance the regular entertaining or luxurious housekeeping that Hedda had been looking forward to.

Upon meeting Løvborg however, the couple discover that he has no intention of competing for the professorship, but rather has spent the last few years labouring with Mrs. Elvsted over what he considers to be his masterpiece. Hedda, apparently jealous of Mrs. Elvsted's influence over Løvborg, hopes to come between them. Tesman returns home from a party and reveals that he found Løvborg's manuscript which he lost while drunk. When Hedda next sees Løvborg, he confesses to her that he has lost the manuscript. Instead of telling him that the manuscript has been found, Hedda encourages him to commit suicide, giving him one of her pistols.

She then burns the manuscript, telling Tesman she has destroyed it to secure their future. When the news comes that Løvborg is dead, Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted are determined to try to reconstruct his book. Hedda is shocked to discover, from Judge Brack, that Løvborg's death, in a brothel, was messy and probably accidental. Worse, Brack knows where the pistol came from. This means that he has power over her, which he will use to force Hedda into a sexual affair. Leaving the others, she goes into her smaller room and ends the play by shooting herself in the temple.

Not exactly a feel good play. Hedda is a very hard character to root for her. A product of her class, she is a woman who has married down, it is clear in the play that Tesman is of a different class from her. She's probably rejected many suitors over the years. Now she's 28, and probably married Tesman out of a sense of desperation, hoping that he had a bright academic future ahead of him. She clearly is spoilt and materialistic, caring more for appearances. She envies Mrs. Elvsted for doing the things that she would never dare to do, leaving her husband, throwing her lot in with Eilert. She lives vicariously through life versus living her life.

But is Hedda a heroine or a fiend who destroys everything in her path? Are we, the audience to pity her, for not having the courage to take a stand? For a 19th Century audience, Hedda must have seemed incomprehensible, particularly to the men in the audience. For the women, I suspect she made them look into themselves, and their choices, and it wasn't a very comfortable evening at the theater. Her suicide must have been particularly shocking, a last and tragic attempt to escape her environment.

Even today, there are women out there, who live through the men in their lives, instead of using their ambition and their talents for themselves. Perhaps, they have a fear of failure and find it easier to live through either their children or others. Hedda fears scandal above everything. It is why she will stay married to Tesman despite the fact that he bores her to pieces, it is why when Eilert tried to make love to her when they were younger, she refused. It is why she chooses suicide over being forced into an illicit relationship with Brack.

Her destructive impulses, which even she has no idea why she does the things that she does, take over. And ultimately destroy not just Eilert but also her life. Hedda is bored, and has no other outlet in her life. For some women in the 19th Century, their children were an outlet, but Hedda refuses to see children as a gift. She just sees them as another way to trap her in a life that she doesn't want but has chosen. Ironically, in Kate Williams' new biography of Queen Victoria, the young Queen expresses the exact same sentiments about having children.

So is Hedda a heroine or a fiend? In the end, it all comes down to the individual audience member how one feels about this woman.


Lucy said…
What a wonderful idea, Elizabeth! these ladies, even though fictional, have become larger than life that we've somehow accepted them to be real:)
Unknown said…
The 'G.B. Shaw' quotation definitely is not by him!
My guess is that he is derisively quoting a hostile critic. Shaw revered Ibsen.

Yes, Shaw did revere Ibsen, in one of his first plays The Philanderer, he actually has an Ibsen Club. There are echoes of Ibsen in plays such as Mrs. Warren's Profession and Major Barbara. However, that doesn't mean that he liked all of Ibsen's plays. I think that Hedda would be a tough pill for even Shaw to swallow.
Interesting that you mention the book/movie Forever Amber. It is one of my favs. I would love to read a blog from you about it. ;-)
Thanks Laurel Ann. It's been years since I've read the book. I would definitely love the opportunity to go back and re-read it and then watch the movie. Forever Amber is set in one of my favorite periods of English history.
You've got an award waiting for you at my place!
I have always viewed Hedda as a heroine. Being from Oslo myself, I've grown up with the dramatic works of Ibsen, and Hedda has been the character I most identify with. She is unquestionably a coward - but in my eyes only a coward until she actually shoots herself. In a production of Hedda Gabler that I saw recently, the play ends in a dreamy way, where Løvborg enters the stage and stands behind Hedda, helping her to raise the pistol to her head. In this way she cease to be cowardly in her own eyes and unite with Løvborg. This leads to another question, though: did she free herself from the repressing life as a woman in the late 19th century by choosing to give in to death/Løvborg, or did she simply sacrifice herself for a man and so persists to be a coward/oppressed victorian woman?

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